Forged in the semiotics program at Brown University, fueled by the AIDS crisis, and solidified on the sets of such New York films as Kids, I Shot Andy Warhol, and Office Killer (from which it takes its name), Killer Films stands as the last surviving film company of the early-’90s American indie wave. But it hasn’t gotten any easier for the producing team, being honored this week with the MOMA retro “Swoon: Ten Years of Killer Films.” “Every time a film gets made and gets into a theater,” says Killer’s Christine Vachon, “it feels like a victory.”
Officially created in 1995 by Vachon and Pam Koffler, Killer actually developed eight years earlier, when Vachon and fellow Brown grads Todd Haynes and Barry Ellsworth formed Apparatus Productions in New York. A grant-giving body for short films, the nonprofit helped fund works like the Davey & Goliath spoof He Was Once and Suzan Lori-Parks’s biracial romantic gay fantasy Anemone Me. “Killer drew from the energy and experiences we had at Apparatus,” says Haynes, recalling when they began embracing “narrative, genre, and spectacle”—elements eschewed by experimental filmmakers at the time. “We were all interested in film that used genre, and more overtly playing with these evil forms of Hollywood moviemaking,” he says.
But it wasn’t until Senator Jesse Helms denounced Haynes’s NEA-funded 1991 triptych Poison that the filmmakers realized that art movies could make for a profitable business. “It was the political hoopla that followed the film’s release, with the far right attacking it as a piece of pornography, that helped show the efficacy of this queer-cinema movement,” he says. Vachon credits her early successes—Poison, Rose Troche’s Go Fish, Tom Kalin’s Swoon—for tapping that underserved audience. “They enticed gay people into the cinema who weren’t used to an experimental film, and that was a cool trick,” she says. But today, Vachon notes, “I don’t think we can pat ourselves on the back and say we’re making revolutionary movies. That mantle has been taken on by Napoleon Dynamite, which is speaking to another underserved audience: All my teenage nephews saw it, but none of them saw any of our movies.”
That could change with Killer’s upcoming The Notorious Bettie Page, a portrait of the sexy s/m pinup (starring Gretchen Mol) and her battles with a Senate investigation into obscenity. “You could say we’ve come full circle,” says Vachon, referring to the 1950s-era censorship encountered by Page. “Now there’s all kinds of excuses to control what people see. It’s getting scarier and scarier.” The film also marks a return for Killer Films to location shooting in the New York area, a second collaboration with director Mary Harron, a reteaming with Killer regulars like Lili Taylor and Jared Harris, and another interrogation of America’s prudish morality.
No other film company has consistently tackled such once taboo topics as gay romance, transgender identity, and fetish-crazy sex addicts and survived to tell the tales again and again. Longtime offender John Waters, director of the Killer- co-produced A Dirty Shame, says the key to Killer’s success is simply an understanding of the bottom line. “We have to make money or they’re never going to give it to us,” says Waters. “Christine understands that. Let’s be realistic here. We don’t have a grant anymore. We have a budget. And she really wants and believes and thinks of a way for these weirdo movies to make money.”